A man is so traumatized by the death of his best friend, who dies trying to save his life, that he adopts the friend’s identity, forgets who he is, suffers flashbacks due to radiation poisoning, and puts on a facade as a cold, aloof, and apathetic mercenary who only cares about making money.
If that’s not a story of trauma, I don’t know what is. The story refers to Cloud Strife, the protagonist of Final Fantasy VII.
I’m playing the remake of the game at the moment, and it has dawned upon me today that the story of Cloud is one of trauma. Cloud, in the words of Planck Storytime, is a JRPG anti-hero — he is not “noble, adventurous, and outgoing,” but instead is just going through the motions and trying to get by. He is arrogant and believes significantly in his abilities. Throughout the game, Cloud has one mission: vengeance in defeating Sephiroth, his nemesis.
Having previously been infused with mako, the energy force of the planet, Cloud struggles to cope with his past traumas, navigate his new life, and forge his own identity. Throughout the early stages of Final Fantasy VII, Cloud claims to be a SOLDIER First Class, the highest possible ranking specialized soldier in the military (like a Navy SEAL in real life) who is now exiled from the ranks of SOLDIER. He puts on the front because he truly believes he was a SOLDIER First Class — Cloud’s best friend, Zack Fair, died trying to save Cloud’s life while defending him from hundreds of Shinra soldiers.
In reality, Cloud was merely an infantryman, deemed too mentally weak to enter the ranks of SOLDIER. He grew up in a mountain village called Nibelheim with his neighbor, Tifa Lockhart. Cloud was raised by a single mother and grew up with very few friends. After Tifa’s mother dies, she goes on a journey through the mountains, where Cloud follows her. In the process, Tifa almost dies from falling, but Cloud saves her.
However, men from the village did not see a savior in Cloud. They saw a boy who was responsible for Tifa falling, and Cloud becomes even more of a resentful outcast as a result. To toughen up and try to protect Tifa, Cloud tries to join SOLDIER but ends up simply an infantryman.
The man Cloud wanted to emulate was Sephiroth, the best SOLDIER in the history of Shinra.
Throughout the story of Final Fantasy VII: Remake, Cloud has constant headaches, flashbacks, and hallucinations due to mako poisoning as well as his own trauma. In the world of Final Fantasy VII, mako is the liquid form of the planet’s lifestream and the primary energy source for the planet. Cloud taking on the identity of Zack connotes a sense of guilt and shame that he couldn’t accept his best friend’s death, so subconsciously he became his best friend through his memories of him.
According to Dr. Matthew Tull at VeryWellMind, dissociation occurs when there’s a disconnection between someone’s thoughts, feelings, memories, and sense of identity. Dissociation is strongly linked with trauma — and according to the American Psychiatric Association, 90% of people who suffer from dissociative identity disorder in the U.S., Canada, and Europe had been victims of childhood abuse and neglect.
Of course, Cloud Strife is a fictional character. While all this might seem confusing to someone who hasn’t played Final Fantasy VII, it’s important to note that once upon a time, Cloud was a lab subject. He and Zack had been involved in the infamous “Nibelheim Incident,” where Sephiroth went absolutely ballistic. Sephiroth had realized that cruel experiments were used to make him into the powerful being he had become. He started to believe that Jenova, a meteor that struck the planet, was his mother, and proceeded to massacre the whole town of Nibelheim, including Tifa’s father and Cloud’s mother.
At the mako reactor, Tifa and Sephiroth fight, which left Tifa almost dead. Zack and Sephiroth then got into a confrontation. Zack barely lost, leaving Sephiroth severely weakened — Sephiroth went to the reactor core, but then Cloud arrived and started to attack Sephiroth with Zack’s sword. While Cloud attended to Tifa, Sephiroth impaled Cloud with his sword.
It seemed, then, that Cloud was done. However, through sheer adrenaline and willpower, Cloud lifted Sephiroth with Sephiroth’s own sword and heaved him into the mako pit of the reactor.
While Tifa was rescued by her mentor before Shinra arrives, Shinra and Professor Hojo arrived to make the survivors of the town test subjects for Hojo. Hojo injected Cloud, Zack, and the other survivors of the Nibelheim incident with Jenova cells and subjected them to constant mako exposure — wishing to turn all the survivors into Sephiroth clones. Zack’s body resists the process since he’d already gone through it as a SOLDIER, but Cloud develops significant mako poisoning and is left in a vegetative state.
Zack broke out four years after he’d originally been used as a test subject, taking Cloud with him and giving Cloud a SOLDIER uniform. For a whole year, Zack tried to travel from Nibelheim to Midgar, carrying Cloud with him and protecting him the whole way. Zack defeated many other strong enemies, but just on the outskirts of Midgar, Zack dies fighting hundreds of soldiers. As Zack lay dying, Cloud woke up and witnessed his best friend breathe his last. Zack’s parting words to Cloud, as he handed him his sword, were the following:
“For the both of us, you’re gonna live. You’ll be my living legacy. My honor, my dreams, they’re yours now.”
Cloud eventually overcomes his trauma. While he suffers another bout of mako poisoning midway through the game, Cloud recovers his true self. He remembers his role as a regular infantryman and the person who struck the final blow against Sephiroth in the reactor. He stops taking on Zack’s identity and takes on his own. He eventually leads the party to finally defeat Sephiroth.
Cloud suffers a form of PTSD from his trauma after the death of Zack. But that was not the only trauma he went through — his mother was killed by Sephiroth when he was 16. And it’s important to note that Cloud looked up to Sephiroth as his idol. As a major spoiler, midway through the game, Aerith, one of Cloud’s closest friends, is killed by Sephiroth. R3zuri on GameFaqs puts the summary of his trauma best:
“His mom was murdered when he was 16. A person he admired and trusted murdered her and burned down his town (pretty much killing everyone else he grew up knowing). And then he almost died because that person tried to kill him. And then he spent 4 years getting tortured/experimented on/held against his will. Then his best friend died. Then he spent months getting stalked and gaslighted by the same person who killed his mom. Then his maybe-almost-girlfriend was brutally murdered right in front of him and he was helpless to stop it. Then his body was controlled and he was made to do things against his will. Then he had to deal with the fact that, oh by the way, he wasn’t who he thought he was after all. Then the world was ending.”
One Tumblr user, @ourfinalheaven, notes that Cloud suffers from significant PTSD. He suffers from all the symptoms listed by Mayo Clinic, which include intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in emotional reactions.
Of course, another huge takeaway is that Cloud tries to cope until the time he has to confront his true self by resorting to tropes of toxic masculinity. He is cold, brooding, not very nice, and takes great care not to show any of his emotions. Of course, he finally becomes vulnerable after the death of Aerith and having to confront who he was and how he felt.
“He enters the narrative as a fully formed hero archetype, and is subsequently deconstructed over the course of the game, until a Fight Club-esque twist reframes his place in the story,” says Jack Ridsdale on PC Games.
Ridsdale concludes that the story, through Cloud, looks at “the fragility of the male ego and the redemptive power of openness,” which is manifested in all its male characters, but particularly Cloud. Throughout the entirety of the game, he is grieving and doesn’t deal with his grief.
Cloud Strife’s backstory is a story of trauma. From his story, we see that time and vulnerability finally allowed him to confront and deal with that trauma.